The whir of machinery buzzes from within a jumble of wires that make up the innards of a 120 pound steel and aluminum contraption. The stout, Wall-E-like robot zooms across the floor of a lab at the NASA Ames Research Center, careening around in jerking spasms as it smashes its outreached arms over yoga balls and swallows them up into its belly before launching them into hoops. Palo Alto High School junior Rachel Berry furrows her brow in concentration behind a plexiglass screen as she stands at the robot’s drive station, directing its every move.
Berry is a member of Space Cookies, an all-girls robotics team founded by NASA and Girl Scouts in 2005, is one of several programs whose main objective is to encourage girls to pursue careers in typically male-dominated science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields. Like Space Cookies, programs such as Girls Innovate and Technovation also try to help girls interested in STEM pursue their passions.
Starting with only 12 girls in its first year, the Girl Scout troop Space Cookies has grown to over 80 members in the past decade. Girls from roughly 25 school districts in the Bay Area come to Space Cookies, some simply in search of a new troop, others because their school does not have a robotics team. Still more made their first drive to the NASA Ames Research Center purely with the intention of enhancing their college resumes. No matter their original incentive for joining, most members soon came to appreciate the nurturing and community-based program.
“It started with me looking for something to do, but now I do it cause I love it,” says Maddy Augustine, a member of the Space Cookies leadership team and senior from Pinewood High School.
The Space Cookies have acquired a considerably strong reputation over the years, proving they are a force to be reckoned with. The team has gone to Sacramento Davis Regional and Silicon Valley Regionals, in addition to consistently qualifying for the World Championships for Robotics every year since 2005 except for 2013.
More importantly, Space Cookies succeeds in promoting continued STEM interest in college-bound members, according to Augustine.
“All of our girls go to college, and 94 percent of our girls go into a college focusing on a STEM major,” Augustine says. “Those who don’t have gone into economics and architecture, so even though they are not technically studying STEM, they’re still very math focused.”
Despite their competitive and personal victories, the Space Cookies have faced several obstacles on their hard-earned path to success. Though outright sexism has never been an issue, the Space Cookies have had to deal with off-hand remarks and attitudes from their mostly male competitors.
“The year before I joined, at the Sacramento Regional in 2012, the robot was supposed to shoot basketballs, and during one of the matches the announcer said that the robot shot like a girl,” says Ivy Li, Paly sophomore and Space Cookies team member. “It was an example of how some things can sound really off-hand and not directly sexist, but they can be very offensive.”
Another issue the Space Cookies have faced this past year relates to a massive membership increase.
“We’ve grown from 50 to 80 girls in the last year,” says Shivali Minocha, a member of the leadership team. “We’ve had to organize meetings so that every girl is still involved and give rookies (first year team members) a good education on our program.”
No prior robotics experience or Girl Scouts membership is necessary in order to obtain a spot on the team. The only requirement is that all members are high school girls. However, if a member wishes to attend an overnight competition, she must demonstrate her commitment by logging a certain number of hours in the lab. Build season begins on the first Saturday of January and continues for six weeks, over the course of which Space Cookies spend at least 100 hours in the lab, logging an average of eight hours a week. In addition, they are required to participate in at least two fundraising events, such as selling cookies or managing a garage sale, and clock 16 hours total of volunteer and outreach events, such as robot demonstrations. However, for dedicated members, this number is almost always surpassed.
“I’ve definitely reached over 200 hours this build season,” Berry says.
Contrary to what their competition allegedly believes, NASA plays no role in the design or hands-on construction of the Space Cookies’ robots.
“We’re a NASA house team, so they provide the equipment and the lab and funding,” Paly sophomore Chloe Mo says.
Along with constructing robots for challenges during build season, the Space Cookies also engage in several off-season projects. This past year the team worked with Mark Leon, one of their NASA sponsors, to start a self-sustainable, all girls robotics team in Colombia comprised of 25 girls. The Space Cookies gave the team an assortment of parts from one of their old robots, along with a drive station to practice.
The Colombian team visited the Space Cookies for a week this past December at the SVR Regional competition. After some assistance from the Space Cookies with translating the safety manual and helping them with talking to judges, they won the Rookie Inspiration award.
Though less seasoned than Space Cookies, Girls Innovate!, a mentoring program based in Silicon Valley that was launched in March of 2013, exposes middle and high school-aged girls to the possibilities of career paths in business and entrepreneurship in addition to STEM by teaching them valuable skills at workshops and events.
“The majority of our projects are free workshops open to all, with a keynote speaker who also facilitates a program to help the girls learn about their area of expertise,” says Gunn High School sophomore Jordana Siegel, a member of the Girls Innovate! Teen Committee. “We also held a huge conference for mothers and daughters in June with speakers on different topics important for women to know.”
According to Siegel, the workshops focus on business skills that cannot be acquired in the classroom. Other events that Girls Innovate! organizes include ‘How to Think Like a Programmer’ and ‘Mother-Daughter Hack Days.’
Along with teaching girls how to balance a budget, negotiate effectively, and successfully run a business, Girls Innovate! fosters teamwork and cooperation through its community-based projects.
“Through the business planning series, girls may have understood the importance of working in teams formed in their community for a common goal,” says Siegel. “They would then unite their voices to piece together a business that will bring impact.”
The age range of girls who go through the program is vast, ranging from fourth graders to juniors in high school. Freshman Sonia Salunke, another member of the Teen Committee, believes it is especially important to promote STEM interest in the younger girls.
“I, personally, love to encourage middle school girls as I feel that if I inspire them earlier then they may have the opportunity to focus on their passion earlier,” says Salunke.
There’s an app for that
Girls Innovate!’s series of workshops that focuses on business planning concludes with the Technovation Challenge, a contest where teams of five girls spend weeks designing and creating a prototype for a mobile app, then present their ideas at to a panel of judges at a Live Pitch event. The winners receive $10,000 and a trip to the World Pitch in San Francisco.
“The purpose of the Live Pitch event was to have it be the culmination of our Business Planning workshops, where we had developed a business, built a budget plan for it and developed a pitch for it,” says Siegel. “It was the ending event, where we could see all of our work paid off.”
Diane Greene, founder and former CEO of VMware, Google board of directors member, and former judge of the Technovation Challenge, strongly believes in encouraging young women to pursue male-dominated career paths in STEM. A veritable pioneer for women in STEM, Greene boasts a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering and master’s degrees in both naval architecture and computer science.
Greene believes that it is important to give girls interesting, hands-on projects that apply STEM skills and knowledge. As a high schooler she herself developed an interest in engineering after constructing a dark room and a model aluminum truss bridge.
“A great way to get the [STEM] education is through fun hands-on experience,” says Greene. “Participate in maker camps and build things in maker facilities.”
Not exposing girls to their potential love for STEM-related activities that are typically seen as “nerdy” or “boys-only” causes them to miss out on opportunities to gain experience in prominent career paths, setting them back from their male peers.
“If you want to have a world that uses every means possible to address problems, increase everyone’s sense of well being, and reduce suffering, then you want as many people as possible to have a deep understanding of technology and how it can be applied,” says Greene. “A diverse population will bring more creativity to any endeavor and raise the quality of whatever comes out of it.”